Guest Op-ed: Turnout Was Up. But It Can — and Should — Be Higher

By Jonathan Cohn

During the presidential primary earlier this month, turnout was up across the downtown neighborhoods.

Despite minimal growth in registered voters, the number of votes cast in the Democratic primary was typically at least 25%–if not more than 50%–higher than it was in 2016’s contested primary.

In Ward 4 Precinct 2 around Back Bay Station, the number of votes cast was up 44%. In Ward 5 Precinct 8, north of the library, votes were up 60%. And although Ward 3 Precinct 6, in the heart of downtown, has seen a lot of new construction, that alone can’t account for the 69% increase in votes cast.

But such increases weren’t seen everywhere. In the parts of Fenway dominated by local colleges and universities, the number of votes cast stayed flat—or even fell.

The residents of these precincts are both younger and more likely to be renters—two populations that tend to move around a lot.

Our election laws, unfortunately, are designed to prevent such populations from voting.

That’s because we have an arbitrary and unnecessary 20-day voter registration cutoff. If you wanted to vote in the primary, you had to have registered by February 12. But those final twenty days before an election are, indeed, when campaigning and media coverage are at their height—and when people are most likely to know an election is even happening. Indeed, local campaigning for Massachusetts presidential elections rarely starts in force until after the New Hampshire primary. That was Feb. 11.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this: Election Day Registration, a policy embraced by almost every other state in New England. When voters can register or update their registration on Election day, turnout rises on average five percent.

All of us who believe in a healthy democracy should want to see increased turnout. But the benefits of Election Day Registration extend beyond that. EDR can also help address the clerical errors that exist in any human-driven system. Did your name get misspelled when it was entered into the registration database? With EDR, you can fix that.

In less than six months, Massachusetts voters will go to the polls again for our state primary. The election falls on September 1, the same date that two-thirds of leases in the city turnover. If you’ve ever lived in Boston on September 1, you know you’ll see your fair share of U-Haul trucks. And that means that many young voters and renters will be moving the same day they are expected to vote—a situation practically designed to cause confusion and disenfranchisement.

With several months in the legislative session left to go, our legislators can make sure that situations like that don’t happen. Senators Joe Boncore, Will Brownsberger, and Sonia Chang-Diaz and Representatives Jay Livingstone and Jon Santiago have all signed on to legislation that would implement Election Day Registration. House Ways & Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz and Representative Chynah Tyler should join them. And they should all stress to the leadership of both branches of the Legislature that, in 2020, strengthening our democracy must be a top priority. 

Jonathan Cohn is the Chairman of the Ward 4 Democratic Committee.

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